Fatherhood isn’t what it used to be. My own dad came from a generation of fathers as nouns—figures to be respected, revered and, at times, feared. They were tireless workers measured solely by their career success and ability to provide financial stability, rather than by their caregiving.
My husband, on the other hand, is part of a new breed of dads for whom fathering is an active and engaged verb. As the stay-at-home parent of our four young kids, he is the emotional center of our family and the CQLO (chief quality-of-life officer) of our lives. He also happens to be a trailblazer of modern fatherhood, challenging traditional notions of masculinity while expanding the definition of fatherhood. I’m proud that his example is showcased in the documentary film The Big Flip (www.bigflipdocumentary.com) alongside that of three other fathers as lead parents.
But public opinion and culture have yet to catch up. Fifty-one percent of Americans still believe kids are better off with moms at home instead of at work. And only 8 percent feel the same about dads, according to the Pew Research Center. Even the acronym for a stay-at-home dad, SAHD, sounds like “sad” when said out loud. These are deeply ingrained values and cultural views that are hard to overcome. Even I struggled in the early years of parenting with shaking off the belief that I was more equipped to be the primary (aka, “better”) parent.
The truth is that good parenting isn’t a question of gender, at least not scientifically. The American Association for the Advancement of Science has found that “the neural underpinnings of the so-called maternal instinct aren’t unique to women … but can be developed by anyone who chooses to be a parent.” In addition, as Live Science has found, “taking care of a child reshapes a dad’s brain, causing it to show the same patterns of cognitive and emotional engagement that are seen in moms.”
But while millennial men are eager to be deeply engaged fathers, “the workplace is keeping men from achieving their goals as fathers” (Lisen Stromberg, Work Pause Thrive). Our expectations for men to be “all in” employees who exhibit high levels of competitiveness and ambition continue to limit men and women alike. There’s much ado these days about gender equality and the need for more women in leadership and the workplace. But to realize this vision, we must champion the other side of the equation—to see, celebrate and support men as equally capable caregivers.
So, this Father’s Day, as a way of honoring my husband and active, attentive dads everywhere, I’m calling on companies to redesign their policies, workplaces, products and services in support of modern fatherhood.
In recent years, big-name brands have stepped up to the plate with “dadvertising” that captures this shift. Cheerios proudly showed the world #HowToDad in 2015, and HP featured real conversations between fathers and daughters as part of its effort to reduce “unconscious bias.” Getty Images launched a new stock-image collection to redefine masculinity, showing men as involved caretakers and caregivers. Target and Dove are also paving the way. But not all brands get it right. Amazon was petitioned by a relentless and vocal group of dads before renaming its Amazon Mom program as Amazon Family.
Yet while words and images have a very real impact in shaping our reality, they aren’t enough. It’s time to radically rethink how we work and how we live so that our realities can match our emerging ideals and intentions.
The opportunity to lead is now. The number of stay-at-home dads has doubled since 1989. And the number of dual-income households has exploded. All of this results in the convergence of roles between mothers and fathers. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center Study, 57 percent of dads say that parenting is extremely important to their identity. Yet 52 percent of working dads find it hard to balance the responsibilities of work and family (something working moms have struggled with for decades). As long as men are held back from full and equal participation at home, women will continue to feel limits at work.
Tech companies like Netflix, Spotify and Facebook are designing the way forward by creating work cultures with paid parental leave, workplace flexibility, on- or near-site daycare, childcare/tuition subsidies and returnships (for both men and women).
Consumer-facing brands have the chance to win families over by re-envisioning how we eat, cook, shop, invest, commute, entertain and set up home, with dads at the (shared) center of it all. Because when we empower dads to “lean in” at home, we liberate both men and women to feel unconstrained in the roles they play and the interests they pursue.
So this Sunday, let’s celebrate Dad by replacing outdated clichés of disconnected dads with the full spectrum of what vibrant and modern fatherhood looks like today.